Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Just as fears of computer inadequacy faded, so will fears of being left behind on the Internet

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #683 September 28, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    It used to be that people were intimidated by the phrase "computer literacy." Computer literacy was something we all had to have, even though no one could really explain what it was.

    But as computers have increasingly invaded our daily working lives, it's become something we no longer hear much about. For most users, computers are tools-- like telephones, fax, photocopiers, even toasters. When did you ever hear a demand for "photocopier literacy"?

    Instead, I now get lots of anxious questions about the Internet, which has become the subject of a near-constant news barrage: couples who met on the Internet, New Year's celebrations on the Internet, art exhibits on the Internet, business conducted on the Internet.

    As in the earlier panic about computer literacy, the questions are based on a combination of genuine curiosity and uncertainty. The result is stress and anxiety: just as we seem to be able to start to take computers for granted, is technological change about to make us feel inadequate again? Even worse, are we missing a business opportunity that our competitors are taking advantage of? I'd suggest that Internet-worriers try to relax.

    The Internet is real-- it's been around and growing since the early 1970s, when it got a start as an experiment funded by the U.S. military to see how dispersed communications between computers could withstand a nuclear attack. From these beginnings with a couple of computers, it has grown to an estimated 300,000-plus networked computers spanning the globe (yes, there's even an Internet site in the Antarctic). And it's growing-- the number of sites and users almost doubles every year-- a rate that would suggest that within a decade, the whole world will be spending all its time connected. (Of course, the rate of growth will level off well before that point.)

    That growth has been achieved by expanding the university science and computer-lab user-base that initially hooked into the Internet. The new Internet is favoured by an odd assortment of art students, underground musicians, and businesses. Despite the Internet's initial anti-business bias, more and more commercial enterprises have found themselves making use of it.

    The most common use is simply for e-mail (with a bit of a competition to get prestigious-sounding addresses), both within the organization and for product support with customers. That's relatively simple to implement, and can bring real benefits-- a complement to more traditional fax-back services, for example.

    Others have tried to use the Internet as a way to market a product-- in some cases, posting a catalogue, in some cases, even automatically taking orders, and billing credit cards on-line.

    While sales over the Internet are getting a lot of attention, I suspect that this high-tech replacement for the Home Shopping Network isn't really here quite yet. There are security problems sending credit-card information over public Internet lines: that credit-card number must pass through literally dozens of computers between buyer and seller.

    A bigger problem may be the lack of organization of the Internet. You've hired a consultant to create a flashy, graphical home page for your company, and posted it on the 'Net. Will people be able to find it? There are several hundred new sites popping up every week, getting listed in a document updated every few days... but for Internet users, there's no real equivalent to the Yellow Pages. (If one did exist, it would be out of date as soon as it was published.)

    Instead of a library, with a card catalogue, it may make more sense to think of the Internet as 300,000 libraries, with 300,000 card catalogues. While net-surfing can be more fun than watching TV, actually trying to find something in particular can be an exercise in frustration. It makes me wonder what sales volume anyone is actually achieving through those new on-line links.

    In a way, I'm reminded most of the home-computer "boomlet" of the early '80s. Spurred on by fears of becoming computer-illiterate, millions of people purchased Commodore VIC-20s, Coleco Adams, and other early home computers which quickly found their way to closets or flea markets as users discovered no real use for them.

    The Internet may evolve into an invaluable resource for businesses of all sizes, just as personal computers ultimately became a tool on every desktop. And some Internet services, such as e-mail, are probably a benefit right now.

    But for most individuals and businesses wondering if they need the Internet, my suggestion has to be "don't worry." Let the early adopters work out the problems for you.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan